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Keeping Rental Units in Livable Condition

Keeping Rental Units in Livable Condition

Landlords and tenants share responsibility to keep rental units and common areas in good condition. (Corey Coyle photo/Creative Commons)

You might have a courteous, professional relationship with a tenant who pays the rent on time, but all of a sudden problems develop, either on your end or the tenant’s. Sometimes this involves the habitability or livability of the unit. The landlord and tenant both have certain responsibilities in the upkeep and repair of a rental unit.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs says on its website:

“A rental unit must be fit to live in; that is, it must be habitable. In legal terms, ‘habitable’ means that the rental unit is fit for occupation by human beings and that it substantially complies with state and local building and health codes that materially affect tenants’ health and safety.

“California law makes landlords and tenants each responsible for certain kinds of repairs, although landlords ultimately are legally responsible for assuring that their rental units are habitable.”

Of course landlords should inspect their rental units immediately once they have been vacated, and sometimes before they are vacated if they have a clause in the rental agreement allowing inspections during occupancy. Landlords look for problems that would make the rental unit uninhabitable for new or existing tenants. They must correct those problems if they make the unit unfit to live in.

Under California Civil Code 1941, as established in a state Supreme Court case, the leases or rental agreements have what is called an implied warranty of habitability. This ruling mandates that landlords must repair defects that make the unit unlivable or uninhabitable.

If the unit is in disrepair because of destructive behavior by tenants, guests or pets, landlords need not repair those defects. Tenants are responsible to fix them damage caused by them, their kids or guests.

Also, landlords must do sufficient maintenance work to keep rental units livable. We will explain further on in this article what conditions make units uninhabitable.

But there is sort of a third category of conditions: less serious repairs. The party responsible for making these repairs, whether the landlord or tenant, is usually laid out in the lease or rental agreement.

California Civil Code Sections 1929 and 1941.2 requires tenants to be responsible to keep the rental unit clean and free of damage, including in the hallways and not just outside. Tenants must repair damages around the unit arising from abuse or neglect. We will give more detail on this below.

The main thrust of warranty of habitability is that rental units be OK for “the occupation of human beings.” Also, units are required to “substantially comply” with housing and building codes that pertain to tenants’ safety and health.

According to California Civil Code 1941.1 some of the conditions that may make a unit uninhabitable include:

  • It contains a lead hazard.
  • It has a structural hazard
  • It has inadequate sanitation.
  • It has a nuisance that “endangers the health, life, safety, property or welfare of the occupants or the public.”
  • It lacks waterproofing or weather protection of the walls or roof. This includes broken windows and doors.
  • It lacks plumbing facilities in good working condition.
  • It lacks gas facilities that work correctly.
  • It lacks heating facilities that work correctly.
  • It lacks electric facilities in good working condition.
  • The environs lack clean and sanitary conditions free from rodents, vermin, rubbish, garbage, filth or debris.
  • It lacks trash receptacles.
  • Its floors, stairs or railings aren’t in good repair.

In addition, California Civil Code 1941.1 requires that the rental unit must have:

  • A workable kitchen sink, toilet, wash basins, bathtub or shower in good repair. The toilet and shower must be in a ventilated room that provides privacy.
  • Windows or skylights in every room and windows that open at least halfway. Alternatively, a room can have a fan that affords ventilation.
  • Fire and emergency exits that give onto a hallway or street. No litter or combustible material are allowed in hallways, stairs or exits.
  • Good deadbolt locks and locks or security devices on windows that work well.
  • Smoke detectors in every unit and in common stairwells.
  • Lockable mailboxes for every unit.
  • “Ground fault circuit interrupters for swimming pools and anti-suction protections for wading pools in apartment complexes and other residential settings (but not single family residences),” the DCA says.

If the rental unit has just minor housing code violations or is not in aesthetically pleasing condition, the implied warranty of habitability is not violated. Also, the landlord sees to the rental unit having inside wiring for a telephone jack, but the warranty is not necessarily violated if it doesn’t. (Civil Code Section 1941.4; Public Utilities Code Section 788)

The California Department of Consumer Affairs says:

“An authoritative reference book suggests two additional ways in which the implied warranty of habitability may be violated. The first is the presence of mold conditions in the rental unit that affect the livability of the unit or the health and safety of tenants. The second follows from a new law that imposes obligations on a property owner who is notified by a local health officer that the property is contaminated by methamphetamine. This reference book suggests that a tenant who is damaged by this kind of documented contamination may be able to claim a breach of the implied warranty of habitability.”

As for tenants, they must:

  • Keep the premises as “clean and sanitary as the condition of the premises permits. “
  • Use gas, plumbing and electricity fixtures properly.
  • Dispose of garbage and trash in a sanitary way.
  • Not allow anyone to deface, destroy or damage the premises.
  • Not remove parts of the structure or dwelling unit or its equipment.
  • Use the rooms in the unit as they were meant to be used. A bedroom can’t be used as a kitchen. (California Civil Code 2(a)(5))
  • Tell the landlord when windows locks or deadbolt locks don’t work. (Civil Code Section 1941.3(b))

If a tenant breaches one of these conditions, the landlord doesn’t have to do the repairs. In that case, a tenant may not withhold rent and does not have legal recourse to say the landlord violated the implied warranty of habitability.

If you find it impossible to navigate the legal system with respect to landlord/tenant law, Express Evictions can counsel you on how to proceed.  If that professional, courteous landlord and tenant relationship breaks down and the tenant refuses to pay rent or otherwise violates legal obligations, you have options in the face of laws heavily weighted to protect tenants.

Express Evictions does evictions for a very low competitive fee that saves landlords the complicated and time-consuming process of writing up notices, serving them, gathering evidence of tenants’ failure to pay rent or other malfeasance, and testifying at an eviction hearing in a court of law.

For questions about keeping your property in livable condition, contact us today.


For tenants who shirk lease terms: mediation or unlawful detainer?

Mediation or unlawful detainer

Sometimes a tenant will refuse to vacate premises even though his lease is up or he’s violated the terms of the lease agreement. In California the landlord may then file a three-day eviction notice telling the renter to get out.

If the tenant refuses, the landlord can resort to filing in court what is called an unlawful detainer that is a lawsuit and tells the tenant to get his property and his person off the premises. The landlord also tries to convince a judge to issue an order instructing the Sheriff to lock out the tenant by court order and a money judgment telling the tenant to pay the money owes. Often, this will include attorney’s fees and court costs if your rental contract has a provision allowing the prevailing party to recover attorney’s fees against the losing party.

All of this takes a lot of time and resources, filing court papers, gathering evidence and witnesses, going to court for a hearing or hearings.

One way to avoid some of the hassle is to go with a mediator instead of an filing unlawful detainer. Some mediators work for free. And their settlement decisions are confidential, unlike unlawful detainer proceedings in court. In court, the hearings are open to the public, and transcripts and judgments become matters of public record.

Landlords can go before mediators with tenants to try to resolve the problems before initiating legal action in a court of law. A mediator is a neutral third party that tries to help people come to a mutual agreement about the property. Both sides can tell their side of the story, sometimes separately, and the mediator’s goal is to reach an equitable decision.

The Santa Clara Superior Court has a good video on unlawful detainer mediation proceedings here.

One of the mediators in the video says: “In unlawful detainer cases, parties are able to come to a resolution as to extended living arrangements and/or departure conditions. You might be able to preserve your relationship.”

Another mediator says, “The landlord may be able to avoid retaliatory damage to property before or during eviction.”

Still another says: “Mediation allows parties to discuss other conditions of tenancy, such as disputes concerning damage, security deposits or rents due. A tenant’s credit record may be protected.”

Mediated agreements are enforceable by law, just as if a judge had upheld an unlawful detainer claim. Mediation can resolve amounts of money owed and how they will be paid, such as in monthly payments.

In some cases a landlord does not need to file 3-day, 30-day or 60-day eviction notices. Check out this article to learn the different reasons for filing different notices. The cases where a notice is not required include when a tenant’s lease is up, a tenant moves out, a tenant works for you and doesn’t pay rent, or you accept a tenant’s notice to end the lease.

The Santa Clara County Superior Court explains all these cases in great detail.

The court’s article gives an explanation the filing of a notice in the case of a tenant moving out:

“This only works if the rent is at least 14 days late and you think the tenant has left.

“The notice:

  • Has to be in writing.
  • The title has to say ‘Notice of Belief of Abandonment.’
  • Has to say the name of the tenants.
  • Has to say the address you’re talking about.
  • Has to say the date the lease ends. This date can’t be less than 15 days after personal service, or 18 days you served the tenant by mail.
  • You have to sign and date the notice.”

There are different kinds of notices. The court’s Web page says many tenants are late with rent, and you may want to wait a bit to see if they pay. Of course, you should include in the terms of the lease a fee if the rent is paid a certain amount of time late, such as 10 or 15 days. This fee cannot be punitive, by California law, but you can recover any costs you incur because the rent is late.

You can file a Three-day Notice to Quit or Pay Rent, and the notice must have that wording at the top of the page. The notice must be in writing, have the name of the tenant, the address and the amount of rent overdue. It has to say why the rent is due and give the dates it was due. The notice gives the tenant notice that he has three days to pay or forfeit the lease and move out. Sign and date the notice.

The Superior Court’s article says the notice must be worded carefully and gives some examples of when it would be invalid:

“The notice won’t be valid if you:

  • Don’t say how much money is due.
  • Ask for more money than what is due.
  • Ask for rent that was due more than 1 year ago.
  • Ask for something that’s not rent. This can be late charges, interest, utilities, property taxes, or damages.
  • Tell the tenant to ‘pay rent and quit’ (instead of ‘pay rent or quit’), or
  • If you don’t let the tenant chose to forfeit the lease. This is called ‘election of forfeiture.’”

There is also a Three-Day Notice to Perform Covenants or Quit, which is executed when a tenant has broken a term of the lease but can fix the problem. The court’s article says this is more for commercial leases and states: “For example, a tenant might use the property to do something that’s not allowed, change the property or refuse to keep up or fix the property. Or, a tenant might not pay late fees or overdue rent.”

See the court’s article for how to write such a notice.

The Three-Day Notice to Quit comes into effect when the tenant: “1) Assigned, sublet, or committed waste in the property, breaking the lease agreement, 2) Kept or allowed a ‘nuisance’ on the property, or 3) Used the property to do something illegal (like selling drugs).”

You can spare yourself the hassle of studying California eviction laws and finding out how to execute the eviction process by hiring an experienced law firm to handle the job at a reasonable price.

Express Evictions can do all the paperwork and any necessary court filings and paying of fees and process servers for a low price. (See our FAQ for what all is covered.) Given how much time and hassle an eviction can entail, hiring our firm is a great deal. Landlords can just hand the case off to us and kick back with a sense of relief that they won’t have to spend hours on the phone and at the courthouse to get a freeloading or destructive tenant off the property.

For help with mediation or an unlawful detainer, contact us today.